Festivals of Kerala – Grounds for Cruelty to Elephants

Elephant

Summer is the time for festivals in the state of Kerala, south India. Religious and cultural festivals held by local communities, temples and other organizations give a festive fervor to the atmosphere and are great social gatherings. These festivals help improve the lives of people and the community as a whole – socially, spiritually and physically. But in many instances the organizers and the consenting public seem to be void of some basic traits of goodness, like empathy for other living beings.

Consider the case of largest living animal on the surface of earth, the elephant. They are  decorated in gold-colored ornaments and brought in to the festivals. The animals, in all its grandeur, is a treat to the human eyes. But what exactly do they do at the festivals? Pretty much nothing! They are just brought in as show pieces to take part in the procession. And what exactly do they go through just to be that visual treat? Unbelievable cruelty and trauma. Read on!

Summer Heat

At the festivals, the elephants are made to stand in the scorching heat (with temperatures up to 40◦ C or 104◦ F) for anywhere between an hour up to even 10 hours. The atmosphere is often very humid. Elephants have very sensitive skins and, contrary to what it may seem, it is not particularly thick, except over the back and the sides where it can be 2 to 3 centimeters. Due the sensitive skins, elephants are prone to sun burns. That is the reason why baby elephants, in the wild, walk under the huge belly of the mother – to protect from sunlight.

Elephant skin has another specialty – they do not have sweat glands. In many other animals, such as human beings, skin regulates the body temperature by sweating. This inability to sweat along with the heat absorbing black color of the skin would make it very hot for these gentle animals. Remember that the natural habitat of the elephants in the region is lush green forest or its close vicinity, where they get very little direct sunlight or can take shelter under trees very often.

Food and nutrition

The primary food of elephants in captivity is coconut tree leaves, especially during the festive season when they travel from festival to festival. It is even thought of as the favorite food of the elephants. But, in its natural habitat, elephants hardly have access to coconut leaves. They diet on leaves, barks and stems of bushes and trees, grasses, vines and shrubs, according to International Elephant Foundation. Would a mono diet of fibrous coconut leaves substitute for all of the nutrition it would have otherwise received from a wide variety of plants? Result – nutritional deficiency.

Social Issues

Elephants are highly social animals and exhibit evolved social characteristics. The minimum size of an elephant herd is 6 elephants. They are intelligent creatures and communicate with each other through long distances using low-frequency sound. In captivity, they are not given the opportunity to engage in their social activities leading to psychological disorders.

Elephants are generally gentle in nature but some turn violent occasionally, in captivity. There were several episodes in the state of Kerala where elephants turned violent and killed people. This typically happens during the “musth” period (a metabolic phenomenon where the testosterone levels are up to 100 times higher than normal). Traditionally, during this period, elephants were given complete rest with lots of food and water. But today some owners would do anything to avoid reduced revenue. They try to suppress musth by denying food and water leaving the animals starving and hungry. Some also administer sedatives. Many experts blame elephant violence on the inhuman treatment: several days of sleep deprivation, over-working and lack of rest, physical torture by mahouts, standing for long hours etc.

Travel

Elephants are made to move from place to place during the festive season. They are made to walk on the hot bitumen roads several kilometers. Imagine what 40◦ C (104◦ F) temperature would do to the highly sensitive skin of this silent creature. Remember that surface temperature of road could be significantly higher than the atmospheric temperature, which is usually measured a few feet above the surface.

Another common mode of transport is via trucks. Elephants mounted on the trucks and are secured by tying them to temporary wooden fixtures using ropes and chains. They are made to stand on the truck’s platform and balance themselves for the entire trip, which can be several hundred kilometers. Mumbai mirror had reported that elephants were transported 1400 kilometers (870 miles) from Kerala to Mumbai for the pooram festival. The festival coordinator claimed, according to the report, that they took “extra care to ensure animals are comfortable during the journey”. Really? How can this giant animal, chained to the platform of a moving truck, be comfortable when it is left to balance for itself on a 1400 kilometers road trip? If they truly believe in the comfort of the animals and want to make sure that elephants are not “traumatized”, a reasonable option would be to spend all that money and influence to try to let go off these elephants to where they truly belong – the forests.

The Offenders

According to the Economic Times, the increasing demand from temples and churches is what is driving the demand for elephants. Of late, elephants could also be spotted in many pompous wedding ceremonies in Kerala where obscene display of wealth seems to be the primary goal of the ceremony, more than even the marriage of two individuals.

The best way to free these gentle animals from human cruelty is to increase public awareness. Use all the tools at your disposal to spread the word. Say no to elephants at public festivals and private ceremonies. Let them go home to the forests.

Elephant Tidbits:
  1. Have you been fascinated with the stereotypical rhythmic swaying motion of the elephants in temples? Have you been told that the animal does this when it is very happy and is enjoying itself? It may look cute, but the fact is that free range elephant in the wild does NOT exhibit this behavior. This swaying is actually a psychological disorder caused due to intense boredom! In the wild, Asian elephants walk 10 to 20 Kilometers (7-13 miles) a day and are active for up to 20 hours!
  2. Transferring of elephant for money is banned by the government – so essentially these animals cannot be bought or sold legally. But smart people have found a workaround – enter into long-term leasing contract for 99 years (Interesting note: Elephant’s life span is 70 years in the wild and is significantly lower in captivity!!).
  3. The government of Kerala has passed several laws and rules to take care of these animals, but they are not implemented efficiently. One provision of rule is that elephants should compulsorily retire from work at the age of 65. (Interesting note, again: Elephant’s life span is 70 years in the wild and is significantly lower in captivity!!).

References

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